A working original Victorian stable tucked away in a modern urban environment, complete with smithy, feedstock rolling machinery, hay loft and cobbled washyard, is a rare treasure to find in any developed country.
The acquisition of the Summer Hill Stables by the Isle of Man Government in April 2018 for continued occupancy by the tramway horses was welcomed by the heritage-supporting community, including the addition of the older stables buildings, the smithy and Tramway Terrace onto the IOM Protected Buildings Register in June 2018.
Always popular, the Summer Hill Stables undoubtedly add significantly to the heritage attraction and experience that the Douglas Bay Horse Tramway is able to offer visitors, quite comparable with elements of Cregneash village so highly prized by Manx National Heritage.
Back in 1877, original tramway owner-operator Thomas Lightfoot purchased a modest property with rear yard and small stables building at the northern end of Queen's Promenade where the tramway first terminated, near to the bottom of Summer Hill road (formerly known as Burnt Mill Hill) and adjacent to the then Crescent Hotel.
He proceeded to develop a larger stables building to the rear of the site, and erected a terrace of three rather plain cement rendered houses fronting the road, with an under-cartway to the rear yard.
The new Tramway Terrace stables (known now as the 'Lower Stables') would accommodate up to 33 tram horses after the addition of a rear lean-to extension in the 1880s.
Isle of Man Tramways Ltd, who acquired the tramway from Lightfoot in 1882, also purchased nearby No.1 Strathallan Crescent with its garden in 1891 and developed the site for their offices, additional stabling and a temporary storage yard for tramcars.
Known as "The Brig", it included the Tramway's blacksmith shop and further stabling for 35 tram horses, much to the annoyance of and complaints from neighbouring private residences regarding 'air pollution' from stable manure, although an independent inspector disagreed and found no 'nuisance' caused!
After the Tramway was acquired by Douglas Corporation in 1902, further stabling was developed on land owned by a Mr Girling adjacent to the Tramway Terrace stables, behind two old shops fronting the junction with Summer Hill road. By 1911, Girling's Stables (now known as the 'Upper Stables') accommodated a further 44 horses, bringing the Tramway's total stabling capacity at the time to 112 horses.
With a view to consolidating stabling on the Tramway Terrace / Girling sites, Douglas Corporation proceeded to re-develop the Upper Stables site in 1911-12, renovating the two dilapidated old shops for renting out. Above the shops were rooms for the saddlers workshops.
At the same time, blacksmithing was moved from the Brig to a lean-to structure at the back of the Upper Stables still seen today.
At the peak of operation in the 1930s, there were 150+ tram horses; further stables were in use at the Queen's Hotel, Fort Street and on Lake Road, with temporary accommodation for a small number of horses within the Strathallan Tramcar Depot during peak season.
In more recent times, a programme of 'modernisation' was undertaken by Douglas Borough Council starting in 1996 with the re-roofing of the lower stables.
In 2000, the 45 wooden stalls in the Upper Stables were removed, the building re-roofed and strengthened, new flooring and drainage laid, and 15 loose boxes constructed in two bays as seen today.
The Lower Stables received further attention in 2004 when the building was strengthened with upper floor and roof supports, 14 of its wooden stalls were removed and replaced with the 8 loose boxes seen today.
In 2005 a new roof with skylights was fitted to the Little Stables building, a harness room created in its loft space and an outside staircase installed.
The original wooden stalls and cobbled flooring in the Little Stables remain in situ to preserve a visual history experience for visitors within an Exhibition Room and Gift Shop.
The combined capacity of the lower and upper stables today is greatly reduced to a maximum of 23 horses (plus one in isolation), with loose boxes large enough for the heavy horses to easily turn and lie down.
The positions and layout of the historical wooden stalls are shown on the accompanying Tramway Stables site plan [click here to open] for interest and comparison.
'Meet the Trammers'
Visitors are most welcome to call in at the Tramway Stables when the Tramway is operating and the stables are open. Access may be restricted or prohibited at certain times of the day when staff are carrying out particular activities or are unable to supervise.
Carrots (broken or chopped please, not whole) are particular favourite treats for the Tram Horses, as are polo mints, but please check with stables staff on arrival in case any dietary restrictions are in force.
Children under the age of 16 must be accompanied by a responsible adult and sturdy footwear is essential.
Guided 'Meet the Trammers' tours of the stables are available on selected dates throughout the operating season led by knowledgeable guides. Visitors can explore the stables, meet and feed the Shire and Clydesdale draught horses, learn about their lives and discover the full story of the Douglas Bay Horse Tramway. There are also a heritage exhibition room and gift shop within the stables.